Globosport, which saw high-profile exits in 2009, has benefited from greater involvement of promoter Mahesh Bhupathi and the core team.

When Mahesh Bhupathi launched Globosport in 2002, he was more hands on with tennis than the business, which was handled by a team of professionals. Leading them was Anirban Das Blah, who had been with Globosport since its beginning, but left the company as CEO in 2009 to set up his own outfit, Kwan. It didn't help Globosport that Kwan was also in the space that can be broadly classified as ‘entertainment, sports and marketing solutions'. Neither did it help that Blah had by then become the face of Globosport, most critically for the brands that wanted to leverage celebrities and the sports and Bollywood celebrities themselves.

In conversation with BrandLine, Bhupathi admits he was blind-sided. “I didn't see it coming,” he recalls. “He wanted to build wealth for himself, build his own company. That's natural,” reflects Bhupathi, with sporting grace. Anirban's brother Indranil, also a key executive at Globosport, followed suit to Kwan. So did others.

The unplayable ball whizzed past Bhupathi, leaving Globosport dazed momentarily. It didn't help that the blinder was delivered at a time when the company was eyeing expansion, entry into films and television production, and digital content. Globosport had had itself professionally valued – at $20 million in 2009 – and was decking itself up for investors. It lost staff, many of the celebrities it managed, and business. Bhupathi decided to get hands-on with the business and claw his way back into the game.

Beyond Endorsements

The first steps were to fill the void that arose from the attrition. The staff structure was changed to protect such future shocks. In Bhupathi's words, ‘So that we won't be hurt again'. He admits that it took a while.

Kavita Bhupathi Chaddha, Mahesh's sister and now CEO at Globosport, who finished her MBA in the US, spent some time in an entrepreneurial financial and shareholder services venture there before joining her brother's company in 2005. When she came in, Globosport was growing the space of talent management, even as its other businesses grew. After the exits of 2009, Chaddha's role in the system increased significantly, even as Mahesh spends most of his non-tennis time now tending to the business.

Even before Blah's exit in 2009, the company had charted a course to move beyond celebrity management into other areas of entertainment, according to Chaddha. She notes, “Celebrity management had no scalability per se. The focus was always to go beyond being a talent management company. The first step was with digital rights to celebrity content. Film production and television shows followed.”

That explains the creation of Big Daddy Productions, which co-produced Chalo Dilli. TV shows under the banner started with ‘Making the Cut' on MTV in 2009, followed by the second season the next year. A conscious decision to not restrict the company to entertainment saw two seasons of ‘The Pitch' being produced by Big Daddy. The business show aired on UTV Bloomberg. Next up are an action project, a sports series around MotoGP, and a talent-based reality show on a Hindi general entertainment channel.

On the digital end, Globosport has signed up 20 celebrities including Madhavan, Virender Sehwag, Priyanka Chopra, John Abraham and Lara Dutta, besides a slew of South Indian stars. Exclusive content from these stars is fed to Web and mobile media by Globosport. This is the fastest growing, claims Bhupathi, among all Globosport businesses. Overall, the company claims to have grown by 35 per cent last fiscal.

Model and actor Aditya Hitkari, who heads the entertainment business at Globosport, adds, “Besides these, we're creating AFPs (Advertiser Funded Programmes) for brands. In-film placement is proving to be very popular too. We know what brands are looking for, and brands know this is a one-stop shop for their entertainment and sports needs. Content is proving to be another offering we can present.”

Globosport is in the process of involving three sportspersons to create instructional DVDs on their respective sports. These will not tell viewers how to play the sport but help them get better at it, explains Hitkari. Cricket is in, as always, followed by football. And yes, let's not forget tennis.

“The last 18 months have seen us become a complete media outfit, leveraging sports and entertainment for brands through television, film, events and digital. On the horizon, we see huge potential for joint IP creation, with celebrities, with brands and on our own,” adds Hitkari, who has been with Globosport through its testing times.

On the film front, a head has been identified in director Raja Choudhary. Three Hindi film scripts have been firmed up, informs Bhupathi, and directors identified. Casting is in progress, and that should also keep one more division at Globosport busy – the casting and modelling unit.

Being a feeder to the entertainment business, casting and modelling are a natural extension for Globosport. The challenge, like in celebrity management a few years ago, is in professionalising a highly fragmented space. And, being in the business of celebrities and brands, it is natural that live events are a key business unit too.

Scale is Beautiful

Globosport did manage to get ‘one round of investments', according to Chaddha. And after investing in digital content, Bhupathi and team were looking at the relatively weaker part of the business after the blink moment of 2009 – its talent management roster. Globosport announced this week that it has picked up a 50 per cent stake in Bunty Sachdev's Cornerstone Sports and Entertainment, which manages the likes of Virat Kohli, Rohit Sharma and Sonakshi Sinha. “We've been speaking to people for a while, and this is a win-win situation,” notes Chadhdha.

With its evolved, brand-facing positioning, Globosport claims to be in a sweet spot. “Several companies with whom we have a long-standing relationship use us as a single point of contact for celebrity associations. The talent management industry is such that one person has a relationship with a celebrity, and starts a celebrity management agency. A corporate doesn't want to go to 10 different entities,” noted Chaddha.

While celebrity endorsements and associations form the mainstay of the business, there are other businesses that have remained unaffected by competition. Mahesh Bhupathi Tennis Academy is one. There are 36 of them spread out across India, and three in Dubai. Another former Davis Cup player, Gaurav Natekar, serves as the CEO.

Play, a Globosport division into developing sports surfaces and consulting on sports infrastructure, has created over 300 surfaces across the world, ranging from the Australian Open to corporate campuses to schools. Moving from tennis surfaces, the division has ventured successfully into badminton, golf, cricket and football surfaces. Now, the company is being increasingly called in for consulting work, says Chaddha – from laying the surface to monetising it.

Advantage Bhupathi

Even as individual business units expand and evolve, Bhupathi's team is eyeing the space of licensing and merchandising. “Everyone knows it's going to be a big business, but no one knows how exactly things will develop in the space. What we're going through in licensing and merchandising is what we went through with digital in 2009 – figuring things out,” Chaddha explains.

Surely, Globosport is a lot bigger than celebrity management, but that's the division that's top-of-mind, for many. Looking back at years as a sports celebrity and managing other celebrities, Bhupathi testifies that talent management is all about relationships.

“No celebrity is going to be happy with their manager if it's not a hundred per cent, trusting relationship,” he adds.

This is a reason why Bhupathi brought himself in to turn Globosport back to its glory days of growth. But he's still on the tennis circuit, circuiting the globe. Does that serve as a disadvantage, when competing with full-timers in the market? He has his team firmly in place, he reminds us. But he doesn't end there: “Playing professional tennis opens a lot more doors than if I were just running the company.”

(This article was published on August 3, 2011)
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